Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The 1970s: 1977 – Morocco, Shetland, Scillies and Kenya




1977 started with an unmemorable trip to Pagham followed by a weekend in East Anglia where highlights were 21 Shore Lark and a Great Grey Shrike at Walberswick, the Glaucous Gull at Weybourne, 4 Bean Geese at Cley and 40 Snow Buntings and 100 Twite at Holme.  Finishing at Hunstanton an Eider was my 100th species for the year.  I was working as a trainee with a firm of accountants and not particularly enjoying it.  Welcome to the real world I guess.  Later in January a weekend trip started at Chew Valley Lake where 43 Bewick’s Swans and a Barn Owl were the highlights.  We continued on to Slimbridge eventually getting a poor view of a Lesser amongst about 3,000 White-fronted Geese.  We drove down to Devon and the following morning saw an immature Surf Scoter on the Kingsbridge Estuary, 8 Cirl Buntings at Prawle and a Dipper near Totnes.  In late January a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming near Lancing College on a walk to Chanctonbury and back from Shoreham was a surprise while 500 Sky Larks were notable, and 2 Tree Sparrows considerably less so.


In early February a weekend reunion with the Liverpool friends we had been to the Camargue with doubled as a planning session for our forthcoming Morocco trip and, for me, an Iceland Gull twitch.  I had previously had a couple of near misses but a returning bird of several years standing seemed likely to fill what was becoming an embarrassing gap.  It performed well at New Brighton and we also saw a wintering Kentish Plover at Red Rocks, 120 Scaup at Caldy and 8 Short-eared Owls in the air together at Parkgate.  The next morning in North Wales was a bit disappointing with 10 Red Grouse and 10 Crossbills the best we could muster.  I was sent on a month long Accountancy course at St. Lawrence on the Isle of Wight and although it was pretty intensive (and very dull) I did manage a few walks along the coast in my rather limited free time.  Best were Little Owls which I heard most evenings and saw fairly regularly and my earliest ever Wheatear (on 9 March).


A Hoopoe had taken up residence for a few days in one of the top fields at Portland and I had an anxious wait to the Easter weekend before I was able to go down.  I had an even more anxious journey down there on the train, missing a connection and arriving late.  I got the bus from Weymouth and fortunately the bird was still there.  My first in Britain although my dad and sister Anna had seen one at Hope Gap on a Sussex Ornithological Society field trip while I was at University in Cardiff (the only trip Anna ever went on).  That evening in the Devonish news came through of a Wallcreeper at Hastings!  How I was wishing I was still in Sussex but fortunately Tim Norris and Dave Bishop were equally keen to go and Tim had space in his Mini.  We aimed to be at Ecclesborne Glen a first light but slightly misjudged it, despite not sleeping at all well, and I remember Tim driving along a thankfully deserted Hastings seafront at record speed.  This really put my anxiety about Hoopoe into context!  We were pretty nifty getting along the beach too, spurred on by a small crowd that were obviously looking intently at something.  The Wallcreeper, a summer plumaged male, was still present and absolutely superb – the best bird I’d ever seen.  I watched it as it feed along the cliffs, often not much above head height, for three hours before we dragged ourselves away and headed to Dungeness.  With just a Black-necked Grebe and 6 Wheatears there we soon wished we had stayed at Hastings for longer.  Stodmarsh was better with the Glossy Ibis flying over, my third new bird in two days!  We slept at Stodmarsh and saw the Ibis again the following morning before heading back to Hastings.  Hopes of more views of the Wallcreeper were not to be, the bird had flown out to sea a couple of hours before our arrival.  We were almost as upset not to see it again as those arriving for the first time.

from Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds in Britain & Ireland

In mid April ten of us flew to Malaga where we hired two cars which we took across to Morocco for two weeks.  It was a very enjoyable trip with lots of new birds including Bald Ibis (flocks of 22 and 37), Black-shouldered Kite, Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Thick-billed and Hoopoe Larks and Mousier’s Redstart. (see http://birdingneversleeps.blogspot.co.uk/1977_04_01_archive.html).  Also of note were a flock of 11 Fulvous Whistling Duck which were, as far as we were aware, the first record for the Western Palearctic.  

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater on the edge of the desert in southern Morocco

Hoopoe Lark in the desert in southern Morocco
Bald Ibis near Tifnit, Morocco
May was quiet, I’d not really discovered sea-watching, with two Savi’s Warblers at Stodmarsh and a decent weekend in East Anglia where I saw Red-backed Shrike at Dunwich, Stone Curlew at Weeting and Spoonbill, Bittern, Dotterel and Kentish Plover at Cley.  News of a Thrush Nightingale trapped in Lincolnshire was too tempting to resist but we arrived on site at North Somercotes to find it had not been seen since release, something our wandering around did nothing to change.  We had found out the hard way that chasing trapped birds can often be unproductive.  As well as seeing again Spoonbill, Bittern, Stone Curlew and Red-backed Shrike (2 males this time) a long weekend in East Anglia in early June produced a White-winged Black Tern at Cley, Wilson’s Phalarope on the Ouse Washes and Golden Pheasant at Santon Downham.  The last two were new for me with the latter making a nice double, albeit a somewhat plastic one with a male Lady Amhurst’s we saw at Woburn on the way.  If nothing else they convinced me that I wanted to see some wild pheasants although that seemed a very distant prospect.  My views of the phalarope had been disappointing (very distant) and I  returned the following weekend when they were much improved.  We went on to Cley and found a Red-rumped Swallow on the back of Arnold’s Marsh although I only just got onto it before it shot off.

In July I had a very enjoyable week in Scotland with Tim Norris and Dave Bishop.  We drove through the night to Skye, me spending most of the time in the back of Tim’s mini trying to sleep.  We caught the ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy seeing 50 Storm Petrels on a calm crossing.  Once on the Hebrides we drove down to South Uist and made our way anxiously to Vorran Island.  The Steller’s Eider had been present for five years but I was still tense.  I need not have been as we quickly located it, a superb male, and obtained excellent views.  The next morning we called in at Balranald on North Uist, but only managed to hear Corncrake, before returning to Skye.  We cut around Loch Ness heading for Speyside and were pleasantly surprised to see a female Capercallie on the road near Loch Mhor.  A Golden Eagle near there was more expected.  On Cairngorm we saw four Dotterel including a male that we inadvertently flushed from its nest.  It did a broken wing display at six foot range to draw us away from its three eggs.  Nearby a female Ptarmigan had five small chicks.  After seeing Black Grouse and Crested Tit at Badan Dubh the next morning and another quick call into the Ospreys at Loch Garten we drove to Aberdeen and caught the overnight ferry to Shetland.  Once there we headed straight to Hermaness and the Saito outcrop where the Black-browed Albatross was again in residence.  It was sitting in its usual spot but then treated us to an hour’s flying display which was absolutely superb.  The following morning we went to Fetlar where the Red-necked Phalaropes were as good as ever and a Glaucous Gull seemed a bit unseasonal.  We finished our brief Shetland visit at Ronas Hill seeing a female Snowy Owl and two singing male Snow Buntings.  We returned south via Haweswater and my first English Golden Eagle, although a somewhat distant view.

calling in at Tarbert on the way to Lochmaddy
male Steller's Eider, Vorran Island
still in superb plumage while the common Eider were in eclipse


crossing Skye

Dave Bishop and Tim Norris at Loch Duntelchaig. Nice to stretch one's legs!
looking west from Cairngorm, rather ominous weather approaching

looking southeast from Cairngorm
rock coloured Ptarmigan on Cairngorm
Dotterel on Cairngorm
A weekend in Norfolk towards the end of August coincided with a decent fall and I saw 3 Wrynecks, 2 Icterine and a Barred Warbler and 3 Red-backed Shrikes on Blakeney Point and a Hoopoe, Wood Warbler and 7 Wrynecks at Holkham.  Like most trips it started for me with a train to East Croydon where I'd be picked up by Nigel Redman and sometimes Richard Bosanquet. We'd pick up Pete Naylor in Uxbridge and join up with andrew moon in Rickmansworth.  Back home and news of a juvenile Little Bittern at Rye came as a blow, more so when Andrew went early the following morning and saw two.  I was so stressed at work (auditing at the University of Sussex) that I couldn’t concentrate and literally bolted to Falmer Station to catch a train to Rye unsure whether I’d still have a job when I got back!  The train took ages and the walk to Ternery Pool from the station seemed like miles.  When I did get to the hide, rather dishevelled, I was told there had been no sightings for hours, great.  That remained the case for the rest of the afternoon and with the weather deteriorating we gathered outside the hide while a volunteer slowly walked towards the nearest reedbed in which a Little Bittern had last been seen.  It was with much relief that we saw it fly out and across Ternery Pool.  The following was the Bank Holiday weekend and I headed for Norfolk again (I knew very few Sussex birders at this time and wasn’t on any local grapevine).  Weather on the Saturday was very rough with single Sooty Shearwater and Pomarine Skua the highlights.  There had been a Bonaparte’s Gull on Teeside and Andrew was happy to drive so we decided to give it a go as we thought we were at least half-way there.  Maybe that was the case as the gull flies but it seemed like an endless drive just to get onto the A1 and we didn’t make it to Saltholm Pool until the early hours.  I slept in a bus shelter but could have done with a mask to block out all the nearby arc lights.  The Bonaparte’s Gull gave excellent views and we headed back to Wisbeech and Cley, a Temminck’s Stint at the later another new bird off my bogey list.

September started with another weekend trip to Norfolk.  This time we started at Holme although the hoped for White-rumped Sandpiper had moved on.  At least it saved having to pay entrance fees to one or both reserves there.  Cley was better with 2 Spotted Crakes and a Barred Warbler.  On the way home we called in at Welney and saw a superb juvenile Sociable Plover after a bit of searching along rather muddy tracks although Andrew’s car made a good hide.  A successful twitch to Suffolk the following weekend produced Baird’s, Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Benacre, Minsmere and Hanningfield respectively. 

A group of us had booked to stay on Fair Isle for the last two weeks of September.  We met up at Pete Naylor’s house in Uxbridge  where he showed us a dead Leach’s Petrel that he’d got in his fridge – it had been picked up dead nearby.  We drove north overnight calling in on Teeside to look for the Bonaparte’s Gull which was still around but there was no sign of it the following morning.  We continued to Aberdeen and caught the overnight ferry to Lerwick.  First point of call after picking up a vehicle was Dennis Coutts' photography shop in Lerwick High Street for local bird news although we were somewhat disappointed to learn from him that the Ruppell’s Warbler found by Rod Martins at Boddam a month previously had not been seen for several days.  Undeterred we headed there and wandered around looking into the two gardens it had been seen in.  Some decided to look for some waders on a nearby beach but Pete, Hadyn Jones and I stuck it out.  Hadyn then headed for the other garden and Pete suggested claiming the bird to wind him up (the sort of childish prank we were sometimes prone too).  I thought it a bit cruel to raise one’s hopes on a first for Britain like that and we desisted, however five minutes later I saw a movement in the back of the garden as the bird appeared.  ‘There it is’ I said with some amazement but Pete thought I was trying to wind him up and it disappeared before he realised I was being serious.  We called Hadyn over and fortunately it soon reappeared – I’m not sure I would have been believed otherwise!  We were still watching it when the others returned from Voe.  A brilliant start to our trip.  We finished the day on Ronas Hill seeing at least one and possibly two Snowy Owls.  The next morning we saw a Barred Warbler at Kergord (the only find we managed) and flew from Tingwall to Fair Isle.  

from Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds in Britain & Ireland
Coming in low over the cliffs on Fair Isle was not for the faint hearted and landing on the gravel runway was quite an experience although by all accounts the only alternative, the Good Shepherd, could be very rough and the sea crossing lasted much longer.  The observatory was great although not ideally situated in the north of the island when most of the birds were found in crops which were in the south.  The keenest birders were staying in the south too and it was no surprise that they found virtually everything, although they were much more clued up than we were and probably would have done so wherever they were staying.  Having to come back for meals and a washing up rota wasn’t great but that apart we had an enjoyable two weeks.  The first was excellent for rarities, some which stayed over, and the second produced an interesting selection of winter birds.  I had a few ‘blow this island off the map’ moments getting really frustrated chasing Citrine Wagtails around from one end of the island to the other (it transpired after I’d finally caught up with one that two were present, showing intermittently at different ends of the island).  On our third day my most wanted bird, a Lanceolated Warbler, was found ‘running like a mouse’ by Mark Chapman at Shiva.  It was duly trapped, taken to the observatory for processing and released in the obs garden where it was overlooked by the kitchen – no complaints about washing up that day although it took longer than usual with such a distraction!  Unfortunately Eric Phillips day-tripped to Boddam for the Ruppell’s and didn’t see it (it transpired that we were the last to do so), he didn’t get back until after dark and the Lancy was not seen the following day - birding can be cruel.  Other highlights were a Pechora Pipit found by Chris Heard, a Little and 3 Yellow-breasted Buntings, Scarlet Rosefinch and several Bluethroats and Yellow-browed Warblers.  Seeing only one Barred Warbler was a surprise (and that on our first afternoon) and it was disappointing not to find anything, although we were up against very tough opposition.  Andrew Moon arrived for the second week, dental exams having prevented him joining us from the outset.  We flew back to Tingwall and revisited Boddam but could only find a Blackcap.  We then dashed back to Whalsay where we had been told a Booted Warbler had been trapped.  We were not quite sure what we were looking for, and no one else was about when we got there.  We latched on to a non-descript warbler and were trying to turn it into the Booted when we realised it was unringed, rather a setback - looking at it more critically it was clearly a Garden Warbler!  We were now in full panic mode with less than an hour before having to leave to be sure of catching the ferry back to Aberdeen.  Fortunately we didn’t have to wait long for the Booted Warbler to appear, my 8th new bird of the trip.  This time we were sure it was the right bird, albeit still rather a non-descript one.  It even had a shiny new ring on.  We caught the ferry back to Aberdeen and spent Sunday driving home. 

Lanceolated Warbler on Fair Isle, rare locostella warblers take a lot of beating

Pechora Pipit on Fair Isle
like most pipits it has a distinctive call but sadly this one remained stubbornly silent throughout its stay
its very plain face was reminiscent of a hippolais warbler
this Merlin was quite a handful
my best ever views of Corncrake
Long-eared Owl
always a favourite

I had a day at home and caught a train down to Penzance to spend up to four weeks on the Isles of Scilly.  I’m not sure how I managed to get so much time off (a month of unpaid leave) but I was finding working quite a shock after the flexibility (and long holidays) of being a student.  Almost the first person I met on Scillies was Pete Walton who I was stunned to learn had twitched the Booted Warbler on Whalsey from Scillies!  And I thought we’d done well twitching it after coming off Fair Isle but Pete was in a completely different league.  I stayed on St Mary’s for ten days followed by a week on St Agnes.  Best birds were Black Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Quail, Baird’s Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Phalarope, Short-toed Larks, Olive-backed and Red-throated Pipits, Greenish and Bonelli’s Warblers, Rose-coloured Starling and Little and Rustic Buntings.  A decent haul that included eight new birds but without anything really exceptional amongst them.  Staying on St Agnes, nice as the island was, proved a bit restrictive as it was not possible to day-trip any islands other than St Mary’s unless enough could be found for a charter.  I spent one night in a flat on St Mary’s after dipping on the Olive-backed Pipit at my first attempt – it was found one afternoon too late to get off St Agnes so I got the first boat over the following morning and spent most of the day at Newford looking for it.  With no sign I returned somewhat despondently to the quay and had just got onto the last boat back to St Agnes when news came through that it had been seen again.  I leapt off as the boat was departing and hurried back to Newford but was too late.  I was kindly put up on a birder’s floor and after an anxious night was fortunate that the pipit was still present the next morning.  Back on St Agnes I got a message to call home and my dad told me of a job in London that he had got wind of that sounded like a shoe-in if I could get up for an interview early the following week as someone was needed urgently.  He knew I wasn’t enjoying accountancy!  I booked a helicopter off on the Saturday but things then started to go pear-shaped.  An Arctic Redpoll was found on Bryher but there was a reluctance by those staying on St Agnres to charter for it, believing it was only identifiable in the hand.  It wasn’t possible to get to Bryher and back in a day on normal sailings and I should have gone and stayed a night there or on St Marys.  It would have meant taking all my stuff as I was then leaving the Scillies the following lunch-time so I bottled out.  The Arctic Redpoll turned out to be a Hornemann’s and a Spanish Sparrow was found on Bryher by those that tried on my final morning.  That they failed to find the redpoll in the time available was little compensation.  The job turned out not to be as urgent as I had been led to believe and my face/background did not fit.  It would be many year’s before I let anything come before birding again!

Red-breasted Flycatcher on Scillies
Long-billed Dowitcher on Scillies


I came back from Scillies a bit flat but two potentially life changing occurrences were just around the corner.  I went up to Norfolk the first weekend I was back but saw little other than Shore Larks, Twite and Snow and Lapland Buntings.  While in the George the barman asked if a Richard Fairbank was present as there was a phone call for him.  It was Pete Walton asking if I fancied going to Kenya with him, Chris Heard and Mark Chapman for four weeks over Christmas.  There really was only one answer to that although as it would involve handing in my notice I asked for a couple of days to think about it, or how to break the news to mum and dad!  I hadn’t expected to have to make a decision between work and birding so soon but with the disappointment of my premature departure from Scillies still very fresh in my mind (someone, perhaps Clive Byers, had even done a very respectable chalk drawing of the Spanish Sparrow on the blackboard in the George) I had no hesitation in putting birding first.  Morocco had been good but Kenya was a different ball game and it was hard to think of three keener companions to be going with.  Back at work I was auditing at the University of Sussex again.  It was very fortuitous as while there, and with a view to the future, I became aware of an Operational Research MSc which sounded interesting and worth applying for, especially as there was a good chance of getting a grant to do it. 

A juvenile Spotted Sandpiper at Barcombe Mills Reservoir in mid November was my first birding in Sussex since the Little Bittern at Rye, almost three months earlier.  All weekend in Suffolk looking for an adult Franklin’s Gull at Lowestoft was disappointing as we only had very poor views of it in a roost although Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and a couple of Grey Phalaropes were some compensation.  I couldn’t try again the next weekend as I had been kept in hospital after collapsing due to loss of blood following having my wisdom teeth out.  The following weekend we went back to Lowestoft and this time had excellent views of the Franklin’s Gull, a very smart bird.  My last weekend before Kenya was spent in Cornwall looking for a Laughing Gull at St Ives.  We joined a number of birders who went down overnight and were sleeping under the eaves of beach huts when we caught the attention of the local police.  A few of us were questioned a s to what we were doing.  Looking for a rare North American Laughing Gull we said.  Nick Gardner was asked if he had any identification and produced a North American Field Guide while the rest of us were finding it very hard to keep a straight face!  Fortunately the Laughing Gull was more obliging than the Franklin’s had been and we obtained good views relatively quickly.  A Green-winged Teal on the Hayle Estuary was also the first I had seen.  On the evening of Thursday 22 December I arrived at Heathrow for evening flight to Nairobi via Khartoum.  I met up with Mark, Chris and Pete and we discovered our Sudan Airlines flight had been delayed by 24 hours ....  A blog of the trip starts at http://birdingneversleeps.blogspot.co.uk/1977_12_01_archive.html

Tawny Eagle on the drive to Mombassa
Carmine Bee-eater in Tsavo East, not being done justice by this very poor image
Yellow-necked Spurfowl in Tsavo West
Hartlaub's Bustard on the road in Tsavo West
[blogged October 2014]

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Beachy & Crowlink (18 October 2014)

Saturday 18 October.  I spent most of the day at Beachy and Crowlink, much of it with the full compliment of usual suspects (John King, John and David Cooper and Brenda Kay). Very pleasant walking around in mild if somewhat windy weather.  A good scattering of Ring Ouzels, at least 30 in total with 7 in Shooter's Bottom, 3 in the old trapping area, 15-20 in Cow Gap, 3 east of Belle Tout and one at Crowlink.  Unusually some were seen feeding on paths.  I heard a single scold from a Dartford Warbler west of Shooter's Bottom (at the second attempt) and a Hobby flew east over Crowlink.  Hopes of finding a Yellow-browed Warbler were hindered by only seeing 8 Chiffchaffs.  Other migrants were a single Wheatear, 75 Swallows and a House Martin while a Merlin added a taste of winter.  four Jays and 3 Ravens were seen and a flock of 800 mainly Greater Black-backed Gulls roosting off Crowlink included 4 colour-ringed birds, all just too far away to read although one was a North Thames bird.

Ring Ouzel at Shooter's Bottom




East Sussex highways get their weather forecast wrong
Birling and Belle Tout from Crowlink
pity overflying migrants don't always find the Beachy area as attractive as I do 
part of the gull flock off Crowlink
North Thames Greater Black-backed Gull, possibly YK9T?
Hobby going away over Crowlink

Friday 17 October.  Herring Gull A4AH at the university.

Tuesday 14 October.  2 Jays near Shoreham College.

Monday 13 October.  Peregrine on Southwick Power Station and Herring Gull A4AH at the university.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Tidemills/Hope Gap and Beachy (11-12 October)

Sunday 12 October.  This date last year was my best ever for Ring Ouzels with over 400 seen in the Beachy/Crowlink area.  A repeat was VERY unlikely but a bit of east in the forecast gave me some encouragement of seeing at least one or two before the afternoon rain arrived.  I met John King at Birling at 07:15 and we covered most of the areas on Beachy Head.  We did see two Ring Ouzels, one in Shooter's Bottom and one in the Hotel Garden.  They were my first of the year, but an impressive passage of Goldfinches (c900E) was probably the day's highlight.  We also saw 2 Golden Plover, 41 Stock Doves, 39 Sky Larks, 80 Swallows, 26 House Martins, 21 Pied Wagtails, 17 Stonechats, Wheatear, 3 Blackcap, 38 Chiffchaff, 4 Goldcrest, 4 Jay, a flock of 17 Magpies, 6 Ravens, 110 Linnets, 7 Reed Buntings and 3 Yellowhammers.  On my way home, with last year in mind, I had a quick look around Crowlink, seeing 12 Stock Doves, 10 Swallows, 2 house martins and 8 Chiffchaffs before it started raining.  Also at Crowlink a 'flying away' view of the radio tagged, jessed, escaped large falcon that had been seen in late September.


Wheatear at Beachy
I don't envy it the journey it faces
hope it makes it back next spring
Saturday 11 October.  Heavy showers forecast from mid morning made looking for the Tawny Pipit near Newhaven Tidemills first thing seem like a good option.  It was still present and I also saw 50 Swallows, a Whinchat, 3 Wheatears, 2 Whitethroats, 2 Blackcaps, 11 Chiffchaffs and a Raven.  I left at 10:00 when the pipit flew out of sight over the warehouses with black clouds rapidly approaching from the southwest.  With a reasonable selection of migrants around I headed for Seaford Head barn, being a closer option than Birling, and after a short wait for a heavy shower to pass over I walked the Hope Gap/Harry's Bush circuit.  This was disappointing with 15 Swallows, 5 House Martins, 9 Blackcaps, 35 Chiffchaffs, 2 Goldcrests and 8 Long-tailed Tits.  Little was seen on an afternoon walk by the Adur with Megan - the tide was only just dropping with a Curlew by the houseboats, 58 Turnstones roosting on boats by Norfolk Bridge and a brief view of a Kingfisher.


Tawny Pipit at Newhaven Tidemills
a quick runner and not the easiest bird to digiscope


storm approaching Tidemills, sufficient to split the east Pier in two!


Friday 10 October.  2 Peregrines on Southwick Power Station chimney.

Thursday 9 October.  Drove to work and called in at the Adur on my way home.  The tide was still falling and few gulls were seen, only 15 Ringed Plover but 31 Dunlin.